I am an American technology worker who just moved to Taiwan.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Coffee at the Cat-fe

I had noticed a place called Cafe Dogs and Cats several times when entering/exiting the Zhishan MRT station as it is right on the west side. I never thought anything of it until I read an article about the "Cat-fe" culture in Taipei whereby you eat/drink in a restaurant populated with cats. I even heard of places where you rent a cat as your table companion.

So one day I decided to walk by just to see if this was, perhaps, such a place. There is a menu outside, translated into English, and a sign saying there is a ~150NT pp minimum and a 100NT fee if you just want to come in to look. The windows are blocked out but through the seams I peeked in and, sure enough, loose cats inside.

Shirley and I were looking for a place to grab a coffee after dinner tonight and decided to swing by. We went at 9PM and there was only one other couple in there. I asked if they were closed and the apparent owner said they were open until 11 (pm) but only for drinks. I think there are mostly pasta dishes on the food menu but many choices of hot/cold coffee and tea related drinks including siphon coffee, my new favorite.

There were about 10 cats running loose in the place, 1 dog, and a mynah bird. Well, the bird was in a cage. I was once tricked by a talkative mynah into getting my hand too close to the cage and in the blink of an eye, the bird leaped forward and bit me on the webbing between my thumb and index finger. Man, that hurt for quite some time. The cats were all fancy-type cats that obviously required a lot of brushing. Tucker is a pain to maintain I couldn't imagine having 10 long haired cats to care for.

There is a roster on the table with a snapshot of each cat, its year of birth, and its name in Chinese, I think. One was translated as "Gucci", not sure why they didn't come up with English equivalents for the others like my colleagues at work: "Wesley", "Lester" and bunch of other slightly uncommon Anglo names. I had a Ghanese friend who picked the name "Harrison" after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark as a child. I wonder if I'll ever get to take on a Chinese name. If so, I think I will choose to be named after a famous Chinese star: "Bruce".

Although the cats were somewhat aloof, they were not at all skittish. They sell cat treats and I bet that's the key to getting the cats to join you for a catpuccino (ha!) because I crinkled my sugar packet and 10 heads turned really quickly to see what I had. I approached an petted a few most didn't back away, but it's not like they were jumping on my lap.

My blue mountain coffee was quite good as was Shirley's coconut iced coffee, priced at 150/170 NT respectively, the ambiance is somewhat factored in. If you're thinking, "Geez! Where is the health department!?!? How could you possibly have a bunch of cats running around a food establishment?!?!", you probably don't live in Taiwan. Cat piss smells like a bouquet of roses compared to stinky tofu and any danger from cats being around food is nothing compared to the time I was walking down the street and someone in a makeshift parade through a belt of big firecrackers (already lit) between my legs.

If you are a cat person definitely check it out or just go for the novelty. Warning, there is no Claritin on the menu so bring your own.

(yes, that cat is real)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Test driving the dirty "socialist" health care system

I've had this small lump in my armpit for about 10 years and never had it looked at, at least not by someone with any medical credentials. I do notice that it changes size based on deoderant use, in some way shape or form. After doing some internet research years ago, I try and stay away from aluminum based deoderants. There was a product called "Crystal" that seemed to keep the lump at bay, but it did little for sweat relief.

When I first arrived in Taiwan, I thought the lump had gotten smaller, for whatever reason. Then last week it got bigger, and bigger, and then started to hurt. I hadn't really given much thought about medical care in Taiwan. I do have a National Health Insurance ID card. And I know my company has a 3rd party group insurance plan. I don't have that ID card yet, maybe I should check on that...

But I never thought about where I need to go when I have a very painful golf ball sized lump in my armpit. So I harnessed the power of Shirley's helpful HR group and came up with Dr. Kao in Tien Mu near Mitsukoshi. No appointment necessary, he's in the office Mon-Wed-Fri. I cleared my schedule in the afternoon and headed up there. It's a hundred meters or so up Lane 69 and is clearly marked on the outside; I thought for sure I'd have to walk down an alley and through a butcher shop and then give the secret knock before heading up a spiral staircase... But not the case. Maybe I'm getting too jaded about certain Taiwanese things.

The receptionist was very friends and spoke English well. She handed me a form to fill out and asked if I had a National Health Insurance card. The form was quite simple, where do you live and are you allergic to anything. I sat down and called Shirley to let her know that I was going to see the doctor and before she could even pick up the phone, Dr, Kao opened his door and called me in.

He also spoke English well and must have lived in the States for some time. You can typically  tell by the idioms that people use whether they ever lived in the U.S. I explained the situation and his eyes lit up like a kid in a candy store when I got to the part, "I have this lump in my armpit" and he was chomping at the bit to have a look. As I was slipping my arm out of my shirt he quipped, "At least we know it's not breast cancer!"

Check. No breast cancer.

Upon seeing it his diagnosis was instantaneous and I was relieved that he wasn't going to try and squeeze or poke it. He said it was an abscess caused by a bacterial infection and a cyst in my armpit. The heavy sweating in the middle of the Taiwan summer caused things to get worse as the sweat glands are blocked and next thing you know, I'm smuggling a Titleist under my arm. The plan is to treat the bacterial infection with antibiotics and leave the cyst be. We did talk about the potential of surgery to get the cyst out if the problem comes back which I honestly, wouldn't mind doing, to be rid of it once and for all.

They were able to prescribe me an oral and topical antibiotic right in the office, no trip to a pharmacy necessary. He said it would take about 3 days to see an effect. I can't wait for day 3 because on day 2, this thing is quite painful. At least it's growth appears to have been stunted. The cost of the office visit was $6 USD and the 2 prescriptions was $2, total. The cost of the NHI plan to me is about $16/month, I suspect my employer contributes a chunk, too. I spent a total 20 minutes in the office, as a walk-in.

I can only speculate that the biggest problem in the United States is the legal system. Some things in Taiwan are cheaper than in the U.S. but it is not off by an order of magnitude. I can't imagine this health care system working in the United States. Part of the magic of the Taiwan system is supposed to be the efficiencey of processing. My NHI card has a chip in it with all the necessary data and there is little to no paperwork on the part of the doctor office. They just scan the card and computers do the rest. But with all of the efficiencey in the world, think of the burden in the U.S. from the civil legal system. Can national health care become a reality without tort reform?

My visit to Dr. Kao did not unlock all of the philosophical mysteries of a national health care system nor equip me to render expert opinion on the entire scope of Taiwan's health care system, but I can at least say one thing with confidence:

"It's not a tumor!"

Thursday, July 22, 2010

July Randomness

I often see something while out on the street and say, "That would make great blog material!" But it never works its way into any meaningful storyline so it ends up just a photo on my phone's memory card. So I think I will publish a monthly-ish photo album of the stuff that gets lost, but is still significant to defininig Taiwan. So here it goes:

This was at the aboriginal village amusement park near Sun Moon Lake and has to be the largest crane game I have ever seen. If they only filled the holding tank with misbehaved children, it would be a fun game to play.

This is a hot dog stand in Shi-Da. Of significance is that they consider the Chicago dog to be the staple of hot dogs which is a bit outside the mainstream even in the States. Much respect.

Shirley visiting Tucker in quarrantine. She goes 3 times per week. Fortunately, he only has another week left.

On the way to quarrantine you can pass through NTU campus and they have a small wetland sanctuary with this strange looking bird that hangs out quite close to the balcony. This old Taiwanese lady thought it would be entertaining to try and hit him with her umbrella. I wanted to throw her in but there were no crocodiles so it would be pointless. 

Here is the Taipei Truth Church. I only had to travel 10k miles to find THE church that is about truth. Phew!

This is a bratwurst and sausage shop that uses a Dachshund silhouette in their logo. Art imitating life?

An entire bakery dedicated to Hello Kitty.

Banana flavored beer. Sounds gross, actually tasted pretty good, if you like bananas. They have some other wacky fruit flavors. Will report back...

This is the end of our block. This guy keeps chickens and lets them roam free during the day. Luckily we are on the 8th floor so we don't hear the rooster in the morning.

This is the next street over. Another chicken farmer.

"Rabbit Rabbit" in Da-An is a popular western style brunch place. Some people take things too far as they were passing around a rabbit mask and taking photos of each other.

In a crowded shopping district there lies a pig pen. Not sure if this was a pet or tonight's dinner.

This was in front of an otherwise normal clothing store. The mascot's shirt says "Looking 4 Poonanie". There is an overabundance of inappropriate slogans on T-shirts and such here. One young girl working behind the counter at a breakfast shop with her father had on a shirt that said "Barely Legal". I wonder if they have any clue what half this stuff means?

There were these large sculptures in front of a corporate building. You can barely make out Shirley in the left armpit.

I have been asked to post more street food related stuff. This place has two offerings. On the left, you grab a basket and some tongs and choose from meats, vegetables and dry noodles. They weigh your basket and then cook it all up into a custom soup for you. On the right, they make a flavored pancake and then wrap it up with egg, bacon, cjheese, ham, kimchi, etc. Quite tasty!

Last but not least, "Essential Beer" from Korea. Couldn't have said it better myself.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Buying a SIM card: the shortest straw has been pulled for you

A big help with adjusting to life in Taiwan is getting a mobile phone. It's one of the first steps to feeling a sense of belonging, a new phone # that starts with the #9 as do all Taiwanese cell #'s (as far as I can tell). Number nine...number nine...

I was able to get a loaner for myself through my company but it was a pain in the neck and I was hoping for a more independent solution for Shirley. Upon the suggestion of a Taiwanese colleague, Shirley found an old GSM phone from several years ago and brought it with her. GSM phones use what is called a SIM card to establish the network on which they communicate and the actual # that people will dial to call you. In many foreign countries you can buy prepaid SIM cards at the rail stations and airports and that ends up being the most cost effective way to use mobile service when travelling.

So we set out for the local 7-11 to buy a SIM card to get Shirley up and running. I went to the counter and asked if they had SIM cards. The first guy kinda laughed, which is more of a nervous reaction for Chinese than anything involving humor. He looked at the second guy and said something in Chinese. They asked if I spoke Chinese and when I simply said "No", guy #2 ran into the back to put guy #3 on the hook for handling the SIM card transaction. Reminds me of last week when I missed a meeting with my leadership team and they voted for me to be the main presenter to get ripped apart by the sector management team.

#3 grabs some paperwork and heads over to the i-bon machine which is like an ATM for various types of networked transaction such as, buying concert tickets. I knew I would need 2 forms of I.D. to buy a SIM card but I had no idea exactly how complicated the entore process would be. He photocopied my passport and ARC and then cut out the photocopies and pasted them on another form like paper dolls. I had to sign some forms and it as very critical what name I used regarding middle/first and sequence. The idea of nicknames seems to be misunderstood here, which is surprising since most use some phony Anglo name. So I often have confusion over Mike/Michael and whether or not I use my middle name.

After we got beyone the signature, he had to put in a local phone # into the machine, and while I have my own cell phone, we don't use a landline. He had a heck of a time figuring out how to get the phone # to be accepted in the i-bon. I hate phone #'s. Who screwed this system up a long time ago such that you can just have a # that you dial the same way no matter where you are? In Taiwan, the cell phone prefx is 9 if you are calling from a landline, or 09 if you are calling from a cell phone. I haven't even figured out how to dial internationall yet. I'm glad that Fring doesn't create such a hassle.

Eventually we got passed that screen and there was another signature and he had to fax something in to the SIM card security checker people or something, to ensure that I was not using the SIM card for....I don't know what. You'd think the U.S. would be like this but you can just walk into a Target and walk out with n activated Tracfone. We paid 10 bucks for the SIM card which included about an hour of airtime but most importantly, assigns you a # so you can have other people call you. Incoming voice and text in Taiwan is always free so it's a good value if you just want people to be able to get a hold of you.

We left with the SIM card and installed it into the phone and read the instructions which said that it would take up to 24 hours to be activated, assumedly for a security check period. The next questions was, "So what's the phone #?" We looked all over the packaging and there were several #'s that had enough digits to possibly be the phone #. That's another thing I hate, there isn't even a world standard for how many digits are in a phone #. I tried dialing a bunch of #'s and couldn't get the phone to ring but I suspect "within 24 hours" is pretty close to 23.99 hours. So next day we tried again, no ring. Then dialed out from the SIM card phone and were able to just use caller ID to find out the #. Now that I know the #, it's staring me right in the face on the front of the package. At least I passed the security check.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

umm...please don't destroy my cat

After I settled the transaction with my driver and got him to sign my, surely binding contract, I went over to the waiting area to look for the wife. Another shameless Android application plug goes to Fring. It's basically a mobile interface for Skype. While I would love to be using Google Voice I haven't found a way to activate it as they will not cooperate with those of us outside the U.S., at least not in Taiwan. I can't even activate it as it works directly through your mobile # and it knows where I am. So Fring, it is.

I called Shirley's cell phone and after a couple of straight-to-voice-mails, I get a ring. Her plane had already been on the ground for about an hour by the time she picked up. I quickly realized that she was crying and she started saying something about there was something wrong with the paperwork for the cat.

Throughout the process of preparing to import your cat, there are plenty of places where the Taiwan Quarantine Department warns that if anything is screwed up, "your pet may be destroyed". So right away I am thinking, "Oh no, they destroyed the cat!" I'm picturing some sort of bomb squad box, the thing that they put the bomb in for protection and then blow it up...like that but with a cat inside.

I make some sense out of what she's saying and it sounds like, on one piece of paper it says Tucker (the cat) had a "booster" rabies vaccine and on the other document it doesn't say booster. It's like, I met this guy a couple weeks ago, he has one document where his middle name is spelled slightly differently than on another document and he was facing deportation. The same group of people had a get together a couple weeks later and he was not there. Maybe he's gone. For anyone naming children, skip the middle name, it's such a hassle if you ever leave the U.S. I now go through it with everything, even the whole Michael vs. Mike thing is a big pain in the ass.

So, the story is they will let the cat in, but she has to get the USDA to re-issue the import documents using the word "booster" on them. The documents need to be in Taiwan in 7 days, or they will assuredly destroy the cat. OK, that sounds reasonable, well, within the framework of what is Taiwan. She was still on the other side of customs so I couldn't go meet her until she cleared and came into the arrivals hall where I was waiting. They have 2 TV monitors where you wait which show cameras focused on the customs exit doors so you can watch to see when the people you are looking for come out. It's pretty convenient. They also have a newspaper box and the cover photo was pretty funny as there was a brawl in the Taiwanese legislature, which I understand is not at all uncommon.

A few minutes later I see Shirley come out pushing a cart with the cat box on it and the customs lady was with her and directing her to the office. I followed them in and she had the cat parked in the corner along with a couple dogs. They had to wait for the other staff to come in to process the paperwork and told us to come back at 8:30 so we went to grab breakfast. Shirley was still a mess and trying to figure out what to do about the paperwork. We were going to have to get a friend back home to got to the vet, get it done, and make 2 Fedex transactions to get the document here before the dawn of destruction.

After some beef noodle soup for breakfast we were back down to the office to be told to come back at 9:00. It's a very Taiwanese thing to:

A) Be late all the time
B) Say things to appease you that are not true

Saying, come back at 8:30 when they know the guy will not be in until 9:00 meets both criteria. We killed some time with the I <3 Taiwan Tomato Man. So, back at 9 it was and this time the guy was there. Tucker was pretty relaxed yet alert. It looks like he handled the flight quite well, now if he can only survive the next 7 days. The guy came over and said the paperwork was OK and we did not have to mess with the whole USDA booster issues. Shirley almost buckled to the floor in relief and clutched her chest like she was going to collapse. Hopefully someone else doesn't come by and change their mind.

The assigned a courier to travel with us to the quarantine hospital which is part of NTU in Da-An. We loaded everything, and everyone up in the car and were on our way. It's about 40 minutes from the airport to Taipei. They are building an MRT line out there but for now it's either bus or car (or limo if the AC is working). At this point the quarantine people had sealed Tucker's box closed with a wire and that agent is with us at all times to make sure we don't make a break for it with the cat. She helped us get a cart at the hospital and get him up to the 6th floor to check in.

The vet had some wire clippers and let Tucker loose. There were several cats in cages and most seemed surprisingly calm. I wonder what they dope them up with. Tucker did some exploring and then quickly settled down onto the cool tile floor. The vet asked a bunch of routine questions and we had to fill out the same information on several different forms. Tucker has to stay in quarantine for 21 days, they test his blood, as long as he's rabies free, they turn him loose, otherwise, they destroy him. You can make arrangements to visit him three times per week; they keep a planner. We made an appointment to come back on Monday. The charge for the whole quarantine process is about 20k NT or 600 USD. I wonder if you get a refund if the cat gets destroyed, or do they charge extra for that?

A strange story from my driver

On my last day of this business trip in the Netherlands I once again got to see the Dutch advance in the World Cup with a pretty convincing win over Uruguay. I couldn't keep the fleeting thought out of my mind that under any other circumstances, I would find a way to extend this trip and stay until Sunday for the final against the winner of Germany vs. Spain. All of Holland fears a German victory and with it, the feeling that Oranje is doomed. But for tonight, the streets of Eindhoven were filled with thousands, dressed in orange, smiling from ear to ear, and for the most part, reveling without rioting.

The possibility of extending the trip was out of the question as after living apart for 2 months, my wife and I would be flying to the same place from opposite angles as she was about to board a plane for Taiwan. I would land at about 7PM in Taipei and she was scheduled to get in around 5AM the morning after. As we were getting ready to taxi away from the gate at Schiphol, the captain came on to alert us that the blast shield on engine #3 had "blasted apart". The mechanics were checking things out and we were delayed; he said it may only take 1/2 hour if nothing is wrong. 1/2 hour later the pilot confirmed what everyone was hoping for, no problem found and we were on our way. I'm not so sure this was the best outcome as something must have caused the blast shield to blast off. But the plane has 4 engines so we should be OK with three, right? At one point on the flight (KLM), the pilot said something in Dutch and everyone erupted in cheers. I turned to the guy next to me, "Spain?!?!", yep, quite a surprise. We landed on time and my company's driver was there to pick me up. I was alarmed to find out that he does 90% of his business with us, which is a bad thing as when the business climate turns south, travel becomes very limited. I told him he needs to diversify his clientèle but he's afraid that if he's not available all the time, he will lose the account. Tough call.

He dropped me at the office and I paid him, in cash, as always. On may way from the office to the freeway he called my cell and I couldn't quite understand what he was talking about, something with the money and it being dark. I assumed he was claiming that I did not pay him enough. Then my cell phone died, good timing. I showered up and went out to meet some friends for drinks. I checked my email and had a message from Shirley, she was trying to board the flight in Newark, had been in line for 1.5 hours waiting for the TSA to inspect the cat carrier. If you haven't followed the rest of this saga, we are importing our cat, Tucker, into Taiwan. At this stage, Shirley had 45 minutes until that plane took off and she still had the cat and still had not gone through security. But that was the last I had heard and at this time her plane was in Anchorage , Alaska. They have several phone apps where I can see a live (5 minutes delay) map showing where the plane is. Awesome use of technology, though the mindless paper toss game is kinda cool, too. Fingers crossed that wife, and cat, made that flight.

I left the bar right before midnight when the MRT shuts down and made it home for about 4 hours of sleep before heading to the airport. I checked the phone again and it looks like the flight is landing 45 minutes early so I scurried off. It was absolutely no surprise that two minutes after I entered the airport at about 5:30AM, the limo driver called. He had some story about how his car was having electrical problems and he needed to borrow money. He said he could be at the airport in 10 minutes. So now I'm thinking he's claiming I stiffed him, now he wants to borrow money, is this guy making some story up to pay off a gambling debt before the Taichung mafia breaks his fingers?

He shows up and tells me that the A/C broke, it's 100 degrees out, he has a client to pick up, and he can have it fixed at 7AM when the garage opens. He needs about 8k NT (~250 bucks). I asked him what the story was with the money from last night... He says that I had overpaid him and he was trying to get me the money back and was calling to suggest that he just credit my account for the 500 that I had overpaid. Assuming he was truthful, that changed the whole story.

I scrawled up this contract on an envelope stating that he was borrowing the cash, 8500 in total, and I have no clue if this holds weight at all. But I have one thing in my back pocket...he begged me not to tell anyone at work about this as such a scenario would certainly jeopardize him losing all of his business. I told him, "this is between you and me...as long as you pay me back!" He was very grateful and hopefully off to fix his car. He said he'd wire me the money in a couple weeks. It's probably safe to expect a future blog post about the 8,000 I donated to my driver's gambling addiction that did NOT get paid back. I wonder if he bet it on Holland to win the World Cup. Probably so since the thus far infallible octopus has picked Spain. Now where is that wife of mine?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Le Grand Depart: Day one of the 2010 Tour de France

In the past couple years I have really taken to cycling and triathlon and have gotten to the point where I can watch people ride bikes on TV for 6 hours a day for 21 of 23 days in the month of July.  Last year was the first year that I was glued to the Tour de France, thanks to Tivo, and inspired to some degree by the comeback of Lance Armstrong. I had thought it would be a great bucket list item to see the Tour de France, maybe expedite the trip to catch Lance before his second retirement but for many reasons it would not be in the cards.

I had a brief discussion with a work colleague a couple weeks ago and we thought the World Cup and TdF were intentionally staggered for TV viewership reasons. I can't quite remember exactly when it occured to me after arriving in the Netherlands, maybe in the airport, as I came across a poster advertising the Grand Depart being in Rotterdam. I remember knowing this many months ago (that the start was in the Netherlands) when they revealed the route. For those unfamiliar with "Le Tour", it is typically not entirely in France and is not a contiguous route. They even had part of it in England and in most tours, at some point, the bikes take a plane.

I had a "holy f$@^%ng shiat" moment when I realized I would be spending a weekend here in the middle of this business trip and even though the World Cup was still ongoing, the TdF would be starting in Rotterdam, about an hour away by train! The first day is called the "Prologue" and it is an individual time trial. They set up a short course, 8.9km in this case, and one at a time, the riders take off with a one minute interval between each. There is no teamwork, no drafting, it's man against wind and road for 10-11 minutes of whatever strength he can muster. Being from the U.S., I never quite realized how late the TdF stages start. In this case, the prologue was starting around 4:30 PM.

I got to Rotterdam around 3:30 and as soon as you left the station, there were folks handing you a schedule, a route map, and a sweet bucket hat from Skoda, one of the main sponsors. The hat had a tag on it and just to mock the whole, flatten the brim and leave the tag on your hat thing, I left the tag on. Several older folks gave me grief for leaving the tag on. Not sure if they don't realize that it's some trend or if they think the trend is as stupid as I do. Anyway, the tag is still on. I told one person that it makes it more valuable as a souvenir.
There were signs everywhere directing you to the race course, on the ground, on street poles, and many of them told you how much longer the walk was. The forecast was for mixed rain especially later in the evening and the teams scrambled their rosters to let some of the better riders go early and they were hoping to be able to scout the course for the later riders who apparently would have wetter conditions. Luckily the printed schedule was recrunched to the current planned starting order.

I bascially took the shortest route from the rail station to the course and, to no surpirse, it would be pretty crowded there. They had a jumbotron set up (the Dutch have really mastered the daylight jumbotron) and the audio was blasting, partially in Dutch, partially in French. I could make my way through a chunk of the French but in all my travels here, I haven't been able to pick up much Dutch; it just sounds like sneezing to me and I have to resist the urge to say "gesundheit". Although crowded, I was able to walk up to a railing a basically be in the second row when they announced that Iban Mayoz has just left the starting gate.

Four minutes later, a motorcycle with "Gendarmerie" on it went whizzing by, and a few seconds behind, Mayoz went whipping by as everyone cheered. The great thing about the individual time trial is you really get to see your favorite riders isolated from the pack. It takes about three hours for all of the riders to participate but it goes by very quickly. By the time a rider passes, you scan your sheet to see who is coming next, then you listen for the time of the next rider to cross the finish line, then the Gendarmerie are upon you leading the next guy. Every rider has a lead motorcyle in front making sure the course is clear.

It was a light drizzle and then the rain really started picking up as I was walking the course catching a glimpse from different angles. I sought refuge under a building and then the rain stopped. I went back to my previous spot and it really started coming down again. Turns out there was a storm cloud parked right over that spot so I just continued walking and basically found a drier part of the course. I found an underground passage to get to the infield part of the course which was a great idea as there was now plenty of space where I could be on the railing with an unobstructed view. I cheered for riders in the following order of enthusiasm:

  • Lance Armstrong
  • Andy Schleck (should have the best chance to beat Contador)
  • Anyone on Team Radio Shack
  • Any American riders
  • Anyone on Team Garmin (Christian Vandevelde, in particular)
  • Any Dutch riders (since they were on home turf)
  • Guys that I just like (Jens Voigt, Cadel Evans, George Hincapie)
  • Anyone else NOT named Alberto Contador
Lance was scheduled to start about 3rd from last, and about a half hours ahead, I grabbed a hamburger (one of only 5 things available for purchase) and found a good spot. I was next to a rabid Belgian fan who had the whole starting order memorized. After Juan Antonio Flecha passes by you could hear everyone murmuring that Lance was next, then the place fell silent like the calm before a storm. The lead motorcycle came within view and you could hear the crowd  in the distance start to roar and it approached like a wave. Lance may be a polarizing figure in cycling, but people are still in awe of his presence in the sport.

Everyone was cheering and some maniac (me) screamed "Go Lance!" as he flew by. I caught a really quick glimpse of his face. He was sucking wind, in a good way, pushing it hard. Most guys just candy ass the time trail because they know they have no chance to win and figure they'll just start a minute back and deal with it. Lance has always been one of the best at the time trial, but on this course, the Swiss Fabian Cancellara was by far the favorite. He followed Lance and got big cheers, followed by defending champ Alberto Contador.

After Contador went by, everyone up and bolted for the jumbotron about 100 yards away so they could see the actual finish which was about 4km down the road. Lance was in 3rd place when he crossed the finish line, but Cancellara would, of course, crush the field. Then Contador, Lance's "enemy" of sorts came down the home stretch and finished 5 seconds behind Lance. The big question is how he and Lance will fare against each other and the rest of the field for that matter, so this was a huge victory for Lance.

Professional cycling is a very strange sport. For me, the most difficult thing to grasp at first, was that you have almost 200 riders in an event like the Tour de France, yet, only a handful can conceivably win the race. There are teams, but an individual winner is crowned. There are riders on a team that are just there to carry water bottles for the leader, they are called "domestiques". Some teams have a sprinter specialist, who could never with the Tour, but on a flat stage, he has a chance to win that particular stage and get the sponsor's name in the media. And that person comes along with the intent on outperforming the field on ony a few stages.

Then there is the community aspect of it. The term "peloton" means "ball" and describes the formation where the riders cluster together to more efficiently share the wind resistance. A single rider can never outride the peloton except over very short distances. On any given stage, a small group of riders will attempt to defy the odds and break away from the peloton but they are most often caught, in the last few kilometers, and passed like they are standing still.

Then there is the timing. All of the riders in the peloton receive the same time for that stage, whether they are at the front or the rear. Anything else would be way too dangerous and within the realm of a 21 day bike race, the safety is more important than a second here and there. In what other sport can the particpant that finishes first receive the same "score" as the one that finisheds 194th?

If you find this at all interesting, read this book:

23 Days in July

It's one of the best sports books ever and goes into extreme detail of the in's and out's of the TdF, as seen in a year that Lance won it.

Experiencing the prolgue was something I will never forget. I totally lucked out with the timing and location of this trip. The next day would be the first stage, from Rotterdam to Brussels and I am thinking I might take the trip down to Antwerp to see the race. I wonder what it's like to see the whole peloton rush by. Must be intense...

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Jup Holland Jup

I took this job in Taiwan for many reasons, one of which was seeking a greater challenge than what I was experiencing in the States. So far, it has exceeded that expectation. This trip is panning out to be quite the challenege as my job function revolves around global sourcing and I am lobbying to transfer work from one location to the other which tends to piss of the "from" location. My boss is flying out on Monday to come try and seal the deal. The new boss is another reason why the job is very challenging. I think it's just a matter of the two of us syncing up. He's a bit more, say, emotional that any previous supervisor I've had. In our business, people usually just look at the #'s whereas he glances over the #'s and looks at the words. I'll have to figure out how to adjust my style.

I slipped out of work early on Friday and did some work at the hotel because the Netherlands was scheduled to play the quarterfinal World Cup game at 4PM. Shortly before then I made my way down towards the square to grab something to eat and find somewhere to watch the game. I would have to look far as they has a jumbotron in the square and thousands of people were making their way there, decked out in orange to support the Dutch. It was literallu, 100 degrees out and sunny. The bars along the edge of the square had awnings set up with flat screen TVs underneath so I grabbed a beer and ducked under to get out of the sun.

It was Holland vs. Brazil which was probably the best matchup to date in this World Cup. The crowd was silenced as Brazil took the lead mid way in the first half on a strange ball that got through the Dutch defense. Typically, at this point, the Dutch hang their heads and just fall apart. But not this time as early in the second half they equalized, and town square went crazy. Apparently, when the Dutch score, you are supposed to just throw your beer on the ceiling. Shortly afterwards, the bartender comes out with a tray of free beer to replenish. I think beer is the cheapest liquid around here as gasoline and water are more expensive.

Then with a header off a header off a corner kick, "Oranje" went up 2-1 and looked very strong with a few more chances that they could have converted. At the end of the match I grabbed this video of everyone just going crazy.

The party lasted for hours. They have a gate at the town square to keep out glass bottles. You can buy beer in plastic on the other side for ~2.50euros, not bad considering what a beer costs at a ballgame in the States. A couple hours after the end of the game, the square was still pretty packed and the trash was calf deep in places. I'll still be here for the semifinal match on Tuesday against Uruguay.

The other tradition is a lot of dancing and singing, in Dutch, of songs which have Dutch lyrics overlaid onto pop songs. One was the Pet Shop Boys "Go West" and despite my best efforts, travelling 10k miles away from Boston and then another 5,000...still had to sit through Sweet Caroline, bamp, bamp, bamp...

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Height less 110

It's interesting how quickly your frame of reference adapts to a new place. How long does it take before a new place seems like "home" and your past life is now foreign to you? I wonder what it will be like to return to the U.S., just for a visit, as after coming to Europe, I have realized that may everyday life is centered around Taipei. Two things contribute to this realization:

  • The weather: The weather in the Netherlands has been amazing, a little hot for my taste, but blue skies and bright sun are something I have yet to experience in Taipei. Clean air, clean streets, still light at 10PM, I could go on. So far, Taipei is always hazy, cloudy, smoggy, rainy. I hear there is a season where Taipei weather is decent but I get the impression it's like when Steve Martin pays a carnie in The Jerk and is standing in front of a rack of prizes and describes for the winner which prizes they can actually choose from:
"Uh, anything in this general area right in here. Anything below the stereo and on this side of the bicentennial glasses. Anything between the ashtrays and the thimble. Anything in this three inches right in here in this area. That includes the Chiclets, but not the erasers."
Our tour guide in Sun Moon Lake said the weather is nice there in November. I think she went on to qualify that as "mid-November". Chicklets...

  • I used to travel to the Netherlands and notice the level of obesity being quite low. As and on again/off again marginally serious athlete, I notice these things. This time I thought that the obesity level is high and realized that it has not changed, it's just that my frame of reference is now calibrated to Taiwan, where people are quite thin. One of the ex-pats out at the bar had mentioned that there is a "height less 110 rule" that guys have in Taiwan. That is, take a woman's height in cm, subtract 110, that is what she should weigh in kilos. They all immediately started admonishing this rule and how ridiculously unhealthy and sexist it is. Meanwhile, I'm crunching some #'s in my head... I'M HEIGHT LESS 110! I had better keep quiet about this.
...and the beer is quite good, which leads to height less 105 after spending a week here.

Business trip to the Netherlands, leaving Taipei

I've started work on a project which required a trip to the Netherlands. I almost got involved with something that would have involved extended amounts of time in Singapore but I'm glad I weaseled my way out of that scenario. One thing that sucks about Taiwan is you can't get too far on a direct flight and with KLM, I had a layover in Bangkok. Had I known it would be an old 747 with no VOD system, I probably would have gone with China Airlines or Cathay Pacific. I always try and take a redeye because I sleep pretty well on planes and I would rather just land and head straight to work. Most people think I'm nuts but I find that if I head out a day early I end up sleeping when I shouldn't and jet lag is worse.

It's about three hours to Bangkok; the plane was freezing cold and they had no blankets. Not sure if it's just cost savings or what. The one good thing about the flight is they have a strange setup on the KLM 747s where there is an Economy Plus cabin which is half seats, half galley (behind the wall) and they give you more space. My company usually flies us in Plus, though with a full-fare ticket, I was hoping for a business class upgrade which never materialized.

They tossed us off the plane in Bangkok; I'm pretty sure we got back on the same plane. It was a weird process where we went through another x-ray, up some stairs, then down some stairs to the gate. It seemed like our boarding passes were checked several times. I stopped at the gift shop and got some dried Thai pepper crackers that had some fishy/shrimpy type substance in it. It was gross but spicy and salty so I ate all 2,000 calories. And my breath must have stunk like rotten fish.

Back on the plane, this segment I had a free seat next to me which I surrendered to a dirty backpacker because he was stuck in the middle of three and hoping for some more room. As I said, I sleep on planes and I can't smell backpacker stench while sleeping so I didn't hesitate to share the space. Even if you are a stinky backpacker, I can still relate to being stuck between two other stinky backpackers so I figured I'd fall on a grenade.

After landing in Amsterdam I came upon my second and third mistakes at the rental car counter. Mistake #2: an International Driving Permit is NOT a licenese, it's just some hokey translation. You still must carry your state license with you, which I tossed in some closet in Taipei thinking I would never need it again. Luckily, the guy still gave me the car and said, "Don't call me when the cops arrest you", or something to that effect.

Then I asked for a GPS. My company has a policy that GPSs are free for us via our partnership with Avis, but I didn't check the "GPS" box on my travel req because it would have required the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to sign it and I was buying tickets at the last minute as it was. Avis wouldn't even let me pay for a GPS - no foreigners allowed. He suggested a map at which I chuckled, kickin' it old skool.

So I had this map which would get me in the general vicinity of work. I've been here a bunch of times, but when you have a GPS, you pay no attention to where you're going. "At the next roundabout, take the 3rd exit", OK, left turn, Clyde. Luckily I was able to find my way. Oh fourth mistake, didn't check that the AC actually works in the car, which it does not. There some metal on metal screeching in that compressor and it was literally, pushing 100 degrees on my way home from work today.

The one thing I did do right was further check the car for damage and found several scratches. It's not like it really matters as my company insures the cars and I've sideswiped 2 concrete barriers in my work travels. The car is a Opel shitbox and Avis has gone downhill in every way over the years. But so far it has gotten me to work in one piece though I'm tempted to crash it in to something just to show it who's boss.